David Baker in Heaven
Story by Dan Hess
One of the recording industry's leading engineers finally finds space to work
It didn't take a lot of convincing to get David Baker to visit Blue Heaven Studios.
After all, the studio in a renovated church in Salina, Kan., offered the recording engineer with worldwide experience the one thing that is at a high premium in New York City — space.
"For a recording engineer who loves music, the real reason for existing is space that is enclosed in a nice fashion," said Baker, who has done work for Vanguard Records, the Eastwind label, Nippon Phonogram and Enja, among others. "A big space that breathes nicely is what gets people excited when they have microphones."
Excited, indeed. When Baker saw the facilities Acoustic Sounds/Blue Heaven owner Chad Kassem was talking about, he could hardly wait to let the tape roll in Kansas.
"I was astounded when I saw what he'd gotten a hold of," Baker said. "I thought then that there was some hope for this industry."
Baker, whose resume includes work with notable performers such as Shirley Horn, Al Dimeola, and Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW), first met Kassem in the early 1990s in New York. Kassem had gone to Omega Records to discuss pressing 5,000 LPs of Virgil Thompson's The Plow That Broke The Plains. Baker played for Kassem some music from a three-channel tape through modest speakers. Kassem was blown away.
"We sealed our relationship with our infatuation for good sounding audio," Baker said. "We knew we'd be seeing more of each other."
After a few more visits over the next few years, Kassem invited Baker to Blue Heaven. Since then, Baker has engineered recordings by Little Hatch, Jimmie Lee Robinson, Eomot RaSun and Blues Masters at the Crossroads, a two-day blues festival at Blue Heaven.
The long and winding road that brought the 53-year-old Baker to Acoustic Sounds began in the post-war era in the 1940s, continued in the deep South in the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the jazz boom in Germany and Japan in the 1970s and 80s to the hustle and bustle of New York in the 90s.
Baker grew up in the postwar era when television and hi-fi was becoming the rage. His father, Harry, ran an appliance store in Westchester (N.Y.) County, then later worked as a field technician for Raytheon-Kelvinator-Bendix.
Eventually, Baker's father opened Baker Audio in Atlanta — the first component high-fidelity store south of the Mason-Dixon Line. In that innovative facility, Baker's father invented the idea of multiple corners and built a wall of triangles to demonstrate speakers, matching the efficiency of speakers so they would all play the same level.
"In the early 50s, it was groundbreaking," Baker said.
While hanging out at the store with his dad, Baker was exposed to numerous innovations — the original stereophonic phonograph record, binaural tapes for headphones, and experiments with higher speed LPs.
"All this developed in front of my face," Baker said.
Eventually, Baker Audio built a new store on Peachtree Street with an AM-FM radio station playing classic, jazz, folk and blues. It gave young David Baker the chance to borrow the Ampex 602 to record Bach, big bands and at Hootenannies. At 16, he recorded Buffy Saint-Marie's first demo that led to her signing with Vanguard.
Later, with the Civil Rights Movement gaining steam, Alan Ribback, who had owned the Gate of Horn Nightclub in Chicago, came to Baker Audio wanting to record mass meetings.
Carrying his portable Ampex PR10 with a MX10 mixer and a couple of microphones, Baker and Ribback took to recording mass meetings in churches. The mass meetings were designed to get the predominantly black communities excited about registering to vote.
The churches where mass meetings took place were often surrounded by an all-white posse determined to slow the Civil Rights Movement.
"People would do everything they could to stop them (meetings)," Baker recalled.
In the meantime, Baker would record the various indignities, the racist attitudes and police brutality that went hand in hand with the Civil Rights Movement, make copies of the tape at Baker Audio and send them out for the rest of the country to hear.
"I thought, ‘These are my first live recording experiences,' " Baker said. "I thought, 'This is better way of living than installing stereo systems. This is the way I want to go.'
"Being chased by a posse in the back of a pickup is something you see in a movie, but not in real life."
Ribback later asked Baker to come to New York to edit the material, which was released on the ESP label in mid-60s as Movement Soul, and is now on the Library of Congress label in its original form.
One night, Baker ran into Larry Coryell, a guitar player from Seattle who was trying to emulate Wes Montgomery while rock'n'roll was gaining momentum. Coryell, who had played sideman to Duane Eddy, and Baker eventually became roommates, giving Baker an in to Mannes School of Music and various jazz clubs. Coryell, along with Bob Moses, Jim Pepper and Chip Baker eventually formed the Free Spirits.
On a phone call from a friend, Baker went to Apostolic Studios. At the time, Frank Zappa had commandeered Apostolic Studio to work on an early Mothers album being recorded on a 12-track machine (back then, 8-track was the max).
"I was astounded," Baker recalls of watching Zappa work. "I heard the tape manipulated, drums in stereo panned left to right, effects and sounds and molding music in concrete fashion."
It was at Apostolic that Baker recorded Coryell's Spaces album (on the Vanguard Label) and worked for Herbie Mann's Embryo Label. After Apostolic closed, Baker spent two-and-a-half years putting together commercials for No Soap Radio.
From there, Baker went to Vanguard Records, which was a non-union house, giving Baker the ability to be involved in all aspects of engineering.
"It was a very fortunate time for me because the chief engineer was going to leave," Baker said. "They thrust me into the position in my late 20s as being chief engineer."
During that period, the Japanese and Germans began trying to create their own jazz identities, coming to New York to record. Baker often was hired to do sessions at Vanguard for outside labels such as Eastwind and Enja. With those labels, Baker worked with performers such as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Art Farmer.
"That was where and when my identity as a ‘jazz' recording engineer came from," Baker said.
At times, Baker and the record companies worked at breakneck speeds, doing up to a dozen records in 16 days.
With other labels coming to Vanguard mainly to utilize Baker's talents, Baker asked for another $25 a week. Vanguard fired him, so Baker become a freelance engineer in 1976 and quickly found himself in Tokyo documenting the first "Jazz of Japan Concert Series."
Over the last 23 years, Baker has made more than 15 journeys to Japan ranging from two weeks to two months working for multiple engineers and labels.
In addition to his work in Japan in the 1980s, Baker also did a jazz vocal series for Sony. One day, he hooked up with Shirley Horn, and the pair have worked on nearly a dozen albums since then.
In the late 80s, Baker did work for a German label, Minor Music. Minor Music's Stephan Meyner realized that James Brown's backing band had nothing to do while Brown was in jail, so Maceo Parker utilized the JB Horns to put his Roots Revisited album together. As an economic move, Baker recorded it live on his home DAT machine in A&R Studios for around $1,200. The album went on to sell more than 175,000 copies.
In the 90s, Baker continues to be extremely busy with foreign and domestic labels in a full-time capacity as a freelance engineer and producer, working with numerous artists, including Medeski, Martin and Wood Band (MMW), a keyboard-based trio.
He also served as recording engineer for the first Blues Masters at the Crossroads blues festival, which featured more a dozen notable blues artists in a three-day session in 1998 at Blue Heaven Studios. The lineup included Honeyboy Edwards, Snooky Pryor, Willie Kent, Frank Frost, John Brim, Jimmy D. Lane, Little Hatch, Eomot RaSun and Jimmie Lee Robinson. The event was recorded not only for an album, but was filmed as a documentary of the legendary performance.
In addition to recording artists for APO and other labels, Baker continues mastering records for Vanguard Classics, a duality that sets him apart from most engineers.